4 Jul 2017

Change on the cards could keep fans from seeing red

11:09 am on 4 July 2017

Opinion - Sonny Bill Williams' shoulder charge to Anthony Watson's head was 100 percent deserving of the All Blacks' first red card in 50 years, but the rules need to change.

Jérôme Garcès dismisses Sonny Bill Williams with a red card following a shoulder charge.

Jérôme Garcès dismisses Sonny Bill Williams with a red card following a shoulder charge during the All Blacks' second test against the Lions, in Wellington on Saturday. Photo: Photosport NZ

More specifically the sanctions available to the match officials need to be revisited because, as they are now, they're potential match-wreckers.

If the IRB and its referees are going to police anything to do with the head much closer than they ever have - a move which can only be applauded - then more and more players will be shown red and more and more games will be wrecked as a contest because of it.

Saturday's second test wasn't destroyed as a spectacle when Jérôme Garcès dismissed SBW, but that was only because the All Blacks are so good they can still be competitive short-staffed.

French referee Jérôme Garcès.

French referee Jérôme Garcès made the right call but risked the match. Photo: Photosport NZ

The best team won on the night still, but the Lions were pushed by their undermanned hosts.

Had it been, for argument's sake, Lions skipper Sam Warburton sent for an early shower - as he was in the 2011 World Cup semifinal - Saturday's result would have been a one-sided trouncing.

And therein lies the problem with red cards: they will usually end the game as a contest on the park and as a spectacle for us watching.

Imagine the underlying anger some Lions fans would have had, having spent thousands of quid just to get here to see their team steamrolled because of a non-malicious tackle that went wrong.

And that, in my opinion, was what Williams' hit was. Careless and reckless for sure, dumb, probably, but malicious it wasn't.

The shoulder charge that led to Sonny Bill Williams' red card.

The shoulder charge that led to Sonny Bill Williams' red card on Saturday. Photo: PhotoSport

That said, he broke the law and connected with Watson's head so Garcès - as poor a game as he had - made the right decision.

But straight red cards, with their ability to ruin games, should be saved for something malicious.

Only the truly heinous act should warrant a red.

There needs to be something in between because, as the rules tighten up, this will happen more and more - and while a red seems harsh for what Williams did, a yellow wasn't enough.

This isn't a difficult problem to solve either.

Why not make a 20-minute card? The colour is irrelevant, but the punishment wouldn't be.

If you connect with someone's head in a dangerous manner, your team will play a quarter of the game a player down.

Lions player Anthony Watson watches the big screen after a shoulder charge by Sonny Bill Williams.

Lions player Anthony Watson watches the big screen after the shoulder charge. Photo: Photosport NZ

If you don't think that's punishment enough, what about giving the offending player's side a 20-minute disadvantage but allowing the guilty party to be "substituted" after their 20-minute break.

Effectively they're sent off as they are now, but a replacement can come back on after 20 minutes.

Or, if they really want to get serious about cracking down on foul play, make the suspensions far worse.

If Williams' hit on Watson earned him eight weeks on the sideline instead of four, Codie Taylor got a couple for his late tackle and Lions Mako Vunipola and Sean O'Brien went for a four-week skate, a very clear message would be sent out.

Sonny Bill Williams goes off the field after receiving a red card.

Sonny Bill Williams goes off the field after receiving the red card. Photo: AFP

The IRB will claim the message is already clear, but the current sanctions don't appear to be changing enough players' behaviour and by just dishing out red cards all the time, all they're doing is wrecking rugby for us fans.

Some numbers

In the 20 years from 1980 to 2000 there were 57 red cards given out in test rugby. In the 17 years since, that number is already at 88.

Since the start of the 2011 Rugby World Cup there have been 16 red cards given out in what I would refer to as "top tier" tests.

The team who received the card have won only five of those tests, two of which were France who beat Tonga and Italy respectively when the games finished 14-14 and another was when England beat Argentina after both sides lost a man.

Australia beat Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 2013, but Tevita Kuridrani was only sent off with eight minutes to play and that was when Australia were good and Ireland were not.

Patrick Lambie of South Africa is stretchered from the field after a late tackle from CJ Stander of Ireland during the 2016 Incoming Test Series game between South Africa and Ireland.

Patrick Lambie of South Africa is taken off the field after a late tackle from CJ Stander of Ireland during the 2016 incoming test series game. Photo: Photosport NZ

The only top-tier game in the last six years where a team did win despite being a man down for long periods was when Ireland lost CJ Stander against South Africa last winter for knocking Pat Lambie out with his hip in a mistimed challenge.

Even then, Ireland were up by seven when Stander was ejected and only held on to win by six against a South African side on a very fast decline.

Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for more than a decade and is rapt his mate got called out of the ballot for this week's deciding test.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.